Category Archives: Personal Thoughts

Unorthodox Views

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Yesterday, I bumped into a philosophical blog written by a man who’s views were of a definite non-mainstream nature. He wrote about how fat people are never beautiful and how homosexuality is fundamentally wrong, things like that. Now, he actually did this in an intellectual manner – it was clear from his writing that he was smart and well-educated, with a keen and critical mind. Some of what he said did have merit – but not all of it. He was evidently a highly cynical person who refused to accept authority of any kind, and wouldn’t allow himself to be swayed by mainstream thought. This I endorse, as it is a very good state of mind to adopt, especially if one has an interest in philosophy. But he failed to embrace a fully philosophical approach. He didn’t accept things as they were, but challenged them, which was good – but then he assumed that his conclusions were necessarily right, which was bad. I wanted to comment on one of his posts, to question some of his assertions and see whether I could draw him into a debate, but found that I couldn’t. He had decided to disband comments on his blog posts, I read, because he found that most people disagreed with what he said. Which, to be frank, didn’t surprise me.

Naturally, he’s free to do whatever he wants to do, and I can understand his reasoning. Apart from anything else, judging from the content on his blog he would probably get a lot of vitriol thrown at him if he did allow comments. So, in a way, society is at fault. If we lived in the sort of world where, if we stumbled across someone who disagreed with our views, we would try to understand this person’s arguments and then question them in a polite and reasoned manner, he may simply have welcomed the opportunity to have his views challenged. But we seem to prefer to get angry and indignant. Nevertheless, it brought home a couple of important points for me. Firstly, that it really is very important to allow room for discussion when arguing against accepted norms – or when arguing in any way whatsoever. Secondly, that we should never forget that sometimes society is wrong, and people like this blogger are right; as said, some of what he had written made sense.

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Humor, the Bane of Pain

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…Or something like that.

So, as you can tell, I’ve been thinking about humor today. It’s something I tend to do when I’m feeling stressed, anxious or just discontent, because it’s during times like these that I become aware of the potency of humor as a sort of psychological cure-all. Now, I’ve always been something of a “troubled child” and as I’m growing older I’m finding that only the latter half of that seems likely to change. I struggle. That’s not uncommon, and there are plenty of people who have it far worse than I, but I struggle nonetheless. Through reflective thinking and philosophy, I am starting to figure out how to address my various little issues, but I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be entirely free of them. I’m starting to think that for some of us, that’s something we just have to accept. We can fight it, and we might someday beat it, but until then it’s important that we figure out how to accept and tolerate it.

Studying existentialism and the thoughts of philosophers like Epicurus on the nature of happiness has helped me to heighten my personal contentedness, but I still have bad days. So, I’ve started to work out various coping mechanisms (in fact, I’ve been working on them subconsciously all my life, which I think is true of most people). My primary coping mechanism is reading, and I do so very frequently. The escapism that literature makes possible is a wonderful thing when a little distraction is needed. My other coping mechanism, one I’ve really come to rely on recently, is humor. As far as I’m concerned, one of the few things we can say with any certainty about life is that it’s hard. We’re faced with challenges almost every day. Learning how to see the funny side of such challenges has helped me quite a bit. Humor, as far as I’m concerned, could mean the difference between laughing and crying hysterically on those days when everything just seems to go wrong. Not that I ever cry. I am a man, after all; crying is strictly forbidden to members of my sex.

So today I got to thinking about this marvelous thing. Now, I’m not exactly a psychologist, but humor strikes me as a very interesting aspect of the human psyche. It seems to be one of those distinctly human things, like art and music. The vast majority of us are drawn to it, and we tend to revere those who have a firm grasp of it. So what, exactly, is it? And what purpose does it serve?

I’m thinking humor’s the ultimate coping mechanism. The bane of pain, if you wish to indulge my penchant for rhyming post titles. I see it like this: over millions of years, our species has developed a uniquely powerful brain, one that’s capable of astonishingly deep and reflective thought. We all know the cost  of this – we’ll never be as care-free as our dogs and cats appear to be. We’re too intelligent; we see things too clearly; we think about things too much. And we all know what happens to people who take things too seriously. Without a bit of levity every once in a while, people simply break down.  We need a good laugh now and then. I believe our capacity for humor evolved alongside our capacity for deep thought, not necessarily as a bi-product of our intellect but as a sort of counterweight. It’s simple evolutionary biology; the ones who knew how to laugh didn’t get all wrapped up in existential angst when they were out hunting saber toothed tigers, so they got to survive and have babies. Of course, I’m not a scientist (as I never tire of pointing out), and I’m all for non-scientific explanations for things. Maybe God is actually the Ultimate Joker and in order to help us appreciate the occasional divine prank he outfitted us with the ability to appreciate comedy. Regardless, it seems clear that humor’s a pretty big deal. Comedy’s a serious business.

Here’s my point: humor is vitally important. This is something I’m becoming gradually more convinced of. You have to be able to see the funny side of things, to appreciate the comedy of life. Because if you look at it the right way, life’s kinda funny. Look at us all, running around constantly trying to find some sort of meaning in a world that doesn’t necessarily contain any, solving complex maths problems and composing beautiful symphonies but still having to get up in the middle of the night to take a dump. It’s absurd! It’s funny! But that’s not always easy to appreciate, especially when the going gets tough. Some people find it more difficult than others. I know I’m not always very good at it. You don’t need to laugh at every single little thing, but I recon it’s good to sit down every once in a while and try to look at things in a humorous light. Imagine you’re a comedian looking for material – all of a sudden every obstacle becomes a potential joke.

As Chesterton said: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

A Potential Argument Against Art as a Source of Misery

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Okay, so I said in my last post that I wanted to make an attempt at revising Elizabeth Gilbert’s “argument” in relation to the anxiety often said to originate from artistic practice. I’ll say this again; I’m not doing this because I don’t like Gilbert’s argument, but because I think it might be possible to put it together in a manner that’ll be more intuitively appealing to people who find the idea of magic, spirits or divine forces difficult to accept. I don’t really think Gilbert intended for her argument to be particularly spiritual – indeed I may by promoting a misinterpretation here – but it does comes across as that to some extent, at least to me.

In her Ted talks speech, Gilbert talked about alternative perspectives on art, making specific reference to the daemons and geniuses of Ancient Rome and Greece. Her idea was that these perspectives allowed artists to feel a lot less pressure regarding their work and, as a result, lead somewhat happier and more relaxed lives. They would still have to face a certain amount of pain in having to accept that the quality of their work was never assured, and that their greatest piece might be produced early on in their career, but whenever anything went wrong or their work was not appreciated, they’d not see themselves as being solely responsible. In a sense, artists with this perspective would not say that their art was “who they were” (as many do today), but just “what they did”. That distinction is vital; if a person defines themselves through their art, they’re making themselves tremendously vulnerable. Creative people these days are notorious for being bad at dealing with criticism, and this may well be the cause; when someone criticizes their work – even if it’s just friendly, constructive criticism – an artist may well feel deeply offended and even wounded if they view that work as an expression of their innermost self.

There’s no doubt that modern artists suffer, sometimes extraordinarily, and that their suffering does seem intrinsically linked to their work. People often talk about pain as a source of inspiration. But, considering the above, it might be possible that this is not actually necessary. There is a possibility that a new perspective could halt the current spread of depression and mental instability amongst our great artists, and help them live just as happily as the rest of us. Alcohol, drugs, and other commonly employed means of distraction might be made obsolete (or at least far less alluring) through such a change in perspective. Does that view need to contain an element of the otherworldly, though? Are spiritual artists the only kind that can shield themselves against the pain of creative labour? I say no.

Let’s consider, for a moment, what gives a person his or her identity. I’m going to try very hard to not fall into the trap of trying to devise a simple answer to a complicated question here, but I’ll try to be concise. As far as I’m concerned, a person’s identity comes through one thing and one thing only; causation. So what do I mean by that? Well, we live in what appears to be a deterministic universe. In fact, if we accept that there is an external world and that it is at least remotely similar to what we perceive it to be through our senses, and if we accept that our grasp of basic logic is correct, I don’t see how we could deny that the universe is deterministic. Now, for the sake of those who haven’t read or heard about determinism before now, here’s a quick illustration of it; why are you reading this text? Hopefully, because you saw the title somewhere and thought it might be interesting. Assuming this is true, why did you think it’s interesting? Let’s say, it’s because you have an interest in art and are yourself concerned about the suffering it sometimes seems to cause people. Why do you have this concern? Perhaps because your parents brought you up to empathize with the suffering of other people, or because you’ve suffered yourself. Why did they bring you up like this? Maybe because they were brought up in a similar manner. Why were they brought up like that? Possibly their grandparents had been horribly unsympathetic in their youth, and later came to regret it. This is a (simplified) causative chain, and you could theoretically follow it all the way back to the big bang, and beyond.

So, assuming that determinism is correct, which I would say it is (possibly out of ignorance), how does this relate to an individual’s identity? Well, it means that who they are at any given point in time is simply the result of the immensely complex causative chain that has brought them up to that moment. Right now, I am who I am because I possessed a certain genetic make-up at birth (one resulting from billions of years of evolution*), was brought up in a certain manner by my parents, met and interacted with certain people during my childhood and received a certain form of education. All that I am just now comes from this chain, and this essay can be seen as a sort of biproduct of that chain. This text is not something I’ve brought up from the depths of my soul, created by my intellect and passion, but merely something arising from that immense chain of events. It can be argued that I have a certain degree of free will, and that this post comes, in part, from that free will, but that doesn’t change the fact that said causative chain has presumably had a significant effect on it. The causative chain, then, can be viewed as a sort of daemon, and if you don’t like what I’ve written (which I sincerely hope is not the case), then that isn’t entirely my fault.

This particular kind of determinism is tricky and, in some ways at least, debatable. It raises all sorts of other questions and can be a bit bleak if viewed in the wrong manner (perspective again!). Nevertheless, I think I can say with some confidence that it is possible so view the many “external factors” that affect artists and their work as somewhat less ethereal daemons. But does this conclusively prove that art and suffering are not bound together? Unfortunately not, because it only shows that there exist plausible alternative perspectives on art; it doesn’t prove that such perspectives can prevent said suffering. But attitude may well be the key to a contented artistic life.

More on this coming up soon, so if you like it, stay tuned.

*Once again, corrections from scientifically minded people are much appreciated if I’m found to have said something erroneous (or just plain stupid). Indeed, I appreciate valid corrections of any kind.

Creativity and Suffering

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I’d like to talk a little bit about the link between art and human suffering (now that my exams are over, the blog’s going to become a tad more personal and – perhaps – a bit more informal). Now, this is not a philosophical subject I’ve studied with any great detail, but as I do now have some training both as a philosopher and as an artist, I figured I’d give it a shot. Actually, this topic touches on two things that are very dear to me; art and happiness. Art has been a part of my life for a very long time (as long as I can remember, in fact), and I’m talking not just about visual art here but also drama, music and writing. I’m one of those quiet brooding types who seem to have based their persona on the phrase “still water runs deep”, and I’ve always found it substantially easier to express myself artistically than through direct verbal communication. More recently, primarily through my philosophical studies, I’ve realized that if I’m going to enjoy life, I have to seek out a way to understand happiness and – more importantly – what makes me happy. So I’ve given myself a goal or “quest” of sorts; to find some kind of key to happiness. Though, perhaps a more apt word would be contentedness, as I’ve already learned enough to understand that “happiness” (which can be viewed as a sort of extreme, lying at a polar end of the emotional scale, with sadness at the other end) is something ephemeral that comes and goes as it wishes. Naturally, this goal of mine has led to a great deal of thinking, and lately that thinking has been continually returning to the subject of my art.

If I want to lead a contented life, if I want to be happy, do I have to spurn art? Is art something that is simply too closely linked to suffering for an artist to ever have a happy life? Must I give up my dream of becoming a writer and abandon my drawing? These are questions that have been bothering me quite a lot. I don’t want to be unhappy. But I don’t want to stop being creative either. And yet, when I look around there seems to be a lot of evidence to suggest that art and happiness are in a sense mutually exclusive. Phrases like “you must suffer for your art” spring to mind, along with countless anecdotes about artists, musicians, poets and novelists slowly sinking into a deep pit of despair, before dying way too young and way too unsatisfied. A lot of the artists I’ve been shown during my education – Edgar Allan Poe, Jackson Pollock, Robert Frost – obviously suffered in their lives. Quite frankly, this has scared me. As much as I want to be an artist and help people get through their lives with my work (there’s never been the slightest doubt in my mind that art reduces the suffering of its audience), I don’t want to go through that sort of pain. Like so many others, I just want to be happy. I’m not sure I could abandon art completely even if it was made very clear to me that it would make me suffer, but I need to have these questions answered. So let’s give it a crack, shall we?

Surprisingly, I haven’t been able to find many videos or texts addressing this online. By pure luck, however, I typed “creativity”  into my YouTube search bar earlier today, and found a TED talks video on that topic, featuring Elizabeth Gilbert (of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame). I thought it would just be a general discussion on creativity and inspiration, but I quickly realized that Gilbert was addressing the exact issue I’d been worrying about. She, too, had been feeling some anxiety about her art, due in part to the rather ominous precedent set by many of the great artists of the 20th century, but also the comments elicited by her recent success (“aren’t you worried you’ll never top your last book?” and such things). I watched the video, and found that she had some rather good things to say on the matter. Her thoughts were of a spiritual nature, which some people will instinctively disagree with on account of the lazy atheism that has recently crippled our society’s ability to view the world as a potentially magical place, but valuable nevertheless. Basically, what Gilbert had done was to take an anthropological approach to solving the dilemma. She looked at past civilizations and their perspective on art, trying to find a more wholesome view on creativity. Eventually, she stumbled across Ancient Greece and the Romans, with their ideas regarding daemons and geniuses. I’ll include a link to the video, but here’s the gist of it; daemons (not demons) were, according to Ancient Greek mythology, benevolent spirits that served as a sort of link between the mortal and the divine. Basically, they allowed humans to create art by inspiring them and guiding them as they worked. The Romans had a similar idea, but they called the spirits geniuses. Naturally, with this view on creativity and art, an artist was not viewed as the sole actor in the creation of an artwork, but rather as a sort of receptacle or channeler working in unison with some otherworldly being. This protected the artists of the time from narcissism, and took a lot of pressure off of them. If their play wasn’t a hit, it wasn’t just their fault, and if people didn’t like their newest sculpture, then there was a third-party who could take some of the blame. Nowadays, artists are viewed as being solely responsible for their work – the artistic process, in other words, is viewed as being completely internal. We no longer think of people as “having” a genius, but rather as “being” a genius. Not only can this lead to arrogance when an artistic person is showered with praise (as they often are), but it also leads to a good deal of pressure. These days, when an artist “fails” it implies that they were in some way inadequate or “not good enough”. It’s no wonder modern creatives have suffered so much.

I think Gilbert’s spot on, and I want to try to formulate a version of her argument that doesn’t rely on the existence of a divinity (not because I don’t like the idea of the divine, but because as long as an argument is based on such a thing, it can be doubted and I want certainty). Just shortly, though, here’s what I found to be the most salient point in what she was saying; art in itself is not intrinsically linked to the causing of suffering, but our perspective on the artistic process and the way we think it should work is.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA